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This week we showcase an article by Jason Heppenstall, a travel writer. He wrote about his experiences in a small riverside village in the world's poorest and most heavily bombed country on earth, showing us how its people survived and recovered, with their traditional culture intact.
“The Secret War on Laos remains one of the most shameful episodes of the 20th century. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis called it ‘...the most appalling episode of lawless cruelty in American history.’ For six years there was a news blackout that kept Americans from knowing that their government, both Republicans and Democrats, were dropping bombs on civilian targets in Laos. When the news eventually did leak out, many Americans were outraged over what was being done in their name. But by then it was too late and 2.1 million tons of high explosives had been dropped on the villages, farms, temples and schools of this neutral Buddhist country. Laos had been declared neutral in Geneva, and although the U.S. wanted to pursue Vietnamese fighters inside the country, it was unable to do so without breaking international law. The way around it was to use bomber planes whose pilots, code-named ‘Ravens’ took off from bases in neighboring countries.
“This new way of warfare was dubbed ‘automatic warfare’ in that it relied solely on technology and might, with minimal risk to service personnel. It would become a model for future warfare, most recently using drones, and was termed the ‘Laos Model.’ Villages were bombed since they were the only targets visible to the pilots, and local people were forced to flee into the forests, emerging at night to farm their fields. Because the bombing was secret, there was no need for restraint, with whole areas being reduced to ashes. Once the villages had been destroyed, the buffalos, horses and other livestock became the new targets, and farmers were strafed by machine gun fire as they fled their fields. Because the villagers hid in the forests, the planes came and sprayed defoliant to kill the trees. The only place left to hide was the caves that riddled the limestone karst landscape of Laos, but these too were targeted with laser-guided missiles by the hotshot pilots. Once all of these options had been exhausted, there was nothing that the surviving villagers could do other than begin the trek south and become refugees in the camps set up around the capital, where they awaited the end of the war and a return to their fields and forests.”
So many bombs had been dropped on Laos that unexploded shells (with their explosive payload extracted), being the most common type of metal scrap available in this undeveloped, non-industrial nation, became part of the landscape.
“Huge steel casings were used to prop up houses or as walkways over gutters, or as troughs for pigs. ... Other bombs were used as pots and had flowers growing out of them. But these were the safe bombs—the ones that had been successfully defused and turned into useful scrap. Most shops and noodle houses in the village contained, on a wall somewhere, a set of three or four posters that indi- cated in cartoon form what to do upon finding an unexploded bomb. The figures on the posters were shown tilling fields with buffalo, hoeing earth, planting rice, washing in streams and digging up plants. In each environment a piece of unexploded ordnance (UXO) was in evidence. One picture showed a farmer trying to defuse one, and the next frame depicted a spectacular explosion which had one of the man's arms flying off and a gory eyeball, complete with stalk, shooting skywards from his head. All the village children knew what to do with UXO, in the same way that children in England are made to learn the Green Cross Code for safely crossing roads. Walking off the trails in the surrounding hills is strictly forbidden, to falangs (foreigners) at least. Unfortunately for the people of Laos, UXO continues to be a daily menace, and some 20,000 have been killed since they returned to their villages after the bombing. Many of these are children, and even in the course of writing this article in April 2014, I saw news reports of two boys being killed by unexploded muni- tions. Bombing records indicate that 8,470 square kilometers were car- pet-bombed, and that around 280 million cluster munitions, designed to maim rather than kill, were dropped. ... The bombs were everywhere. For several years the warplanes carpet-bombed the area around Muang Ngoi. Many of the bombs they dropped were huge and the scars on the faces of some of the surrounding limestone peaks were still visible, although they were now partially filled in by scrub vegetation and trees.”
“If a community could make kitchen units out of bombs sent to kill them, I began to wonder what else the villagers of the hilly regions of Laos could be capable of that has allowed them and their culture to thrive more or less intact despite everything that has been hurled at them. Apart from the aforementioned geographical barriers (a not inconsiderable advantage if one wants to survive a cultural onslaught) the people of Laos also enjoy one other benefit conferred on them by circumstance: relative poverty. With their terrain too hilly and difficult for building golf courses and luxury hotels, and far enough away from the tax inspectors and other bureaucrats who would want to impose top-down reforms on them, the locals are more or less left to themselves to carry on with life as they have done for centuries. To do so, of course, they have to ask very little of the external system—which they want to avoid at all costs—and here they are lucky too because they can rely on their cultural wealth, the majority of which remains intact. Medicine men and women know which plants to gather in the forests, which herbs to grow in the hollowed-out bomb shells that serve as plant pots (the four stabilizer fins are excellent at keeping the “pot” upright), and, if things get really bad, village shamans know a range of elaborate ceremonies to aid with prolonging life. Agriculture continues to provide sustenance in much the same way it has for centuries, with rice paddies, water buffalos and wandering pigs and fowl.”
“During my time there I began to develop the idea that perhaps the peoples of upper and middle Laos were an example of humanity living in balance with the environment. The subject of human ecology has dropped out of favor in recent years as the age of cheap oil continued to run its course, but here surely was an example of a population living as a dynamic part of its environment without destroying it. Rivers were kept clean, forests were left mostly intact. Disease, natural disasters and small-scale war kept the population within the region’s carrying capacity. And the people loved the land. Fred Branfman conducted interviews with refugees fleeing the bombing, published in his book Voices From the Plain of Jars, and time and again the one recurrent theme among the survivors was that they had left what for them was paradise and could not wait to return. None wanted to live in the city or to become wealthy; all they desired was the chance to farm their fields, be back in their villages and live among their families.”
“...I never met anyone in Laos who seemed to harbor resentment or anger. Perhaps this was a way of staying sane, by choosing not to dwell on negative emotions and instead letting go of the past. Indeed, perhaps this offered a glimpse into the deep inner strength of these people: surely an invaluable strategy in the face of overwhelming odds. Here is another: Laotians in general seemed disenamored with our idea of working any more than absolutely necessary. Traditionally, Lao farmers grew only one rice crop a year, although two are possible even without chemical fertilizers, and spent the rest of the year relaxing.”
“This ambivalence towards participating in a system that promises much but delivers little might prove to be a saving grace for the traditional subsistence farmers of Laos. At a point in human history where the modern paradigm—of putting the economic growth horse before the environmental integrity cart—is dying a messy death, the Laotian subsistence farmer is surely further ahead of the game than the most devout Western permaculturist. Cultural integrity surely plays its part. Traditional dress is still worn in many villages and there are distinct art forms, such as forms of embroidery or batik, that help identify the uniqueness and individuality of each tribe or region.”
As I read through the descriptions of these diverse tribes which Jason provides, I was able to tick off many of the essential traits of communities that abide—absence of money, finance and land as property, refusal to work for wages, informal systems of governance, unwritten codes of conduct, lack of artificial divisions between work, play and education, and many others. These cultural traits allowed them to survive as societies and to return to their native ways after the American carpet-bombing campaign; but will they survive the Chinese economic juggernaut? For their sake, all we can hope for is that it chokes on its own fumes and shudders to a halt in a timely manner.
“The Laotians have a big advantage over their neighbors in, say, Thailand, which went all-in for turbo capitalism a few decades back. A certain amount of resilience still exists in Laos, and because the Laotians can still manage to survive with- out air conditioning, refrigerated food and eight-lane highways crammed with SUVs, they may have a key advantage over others for whom these things have become necessities. The vast majority of investment money pouring into Laos comes from China, and it’s not hard to foresee that China’s gargantuan credit bubble—put at $23 trillion in 2014—will burst messily and cause untold misery for its citizens and those of the other Asian “tigers.” When it does so, and the brave new world that economists and politicians have promised is stood on its head, would you rather be living on the 20th floor of a tower block in a Chinese city, or in a bamboo village hut in the Laotian forests?”
“The people of Laos have suffered more than most at the hands of ag- gressors, and yet they have managed, for the most part, to persist with their ways of doing things. Some people who regard themselves as liber- als in the Western world are appalled by the “backward” practices of some of the more remote tribal communities. But that is just noise; what surely matters most is the fact that the Laotians have managed to survive for so long and over such a tumultuous period of modern history. Whether or not they will be able to do so over the coming years and decades is very much a matter for debate, and it pains those who have allowed themselves to be charmed by this softly-spoken collection of long-suffering peoples to see them lined up for assimilation and fed into the gaping maw of 21st century capitalism. Perhaps all we can do is observe this diverse collection of cultures with respect, gain wisdom as we do so, and hope that they may continue to abide long into the future.”
Yet another ignominious episode of the US Gov't assaulting traditional cultures. Another one: Afghanistan.
Thanks for sharing your story of the Laotian people. It's a beautiful and excellent lesson about the sickness that pervades our industrialized world.
Thanks for this excellent piece, Jason - and Dmitry. I'll viralise it as much as I can.
I just finished reading WWII from the Japanese perspective and the carpet fire bombing of Tokyo, etc. and the bombing out of islands where Japanese soldiers held out sounds pretty much the same, flamethrowers at caves, etc. The whole process was gruesome killing millions with hi-tech. Japanese could be very cruel indeed and brutal on an individual level but Americans, who mostly were well behaved (no raping, murder or pillage) just put them in a plane and let them kill hundreds of thousands at a time and personally I would rather be a brutal savage killing one person at a time and having a fitful sleep with nightmares like a predatory animal than using technology to kill millions anonymously and then sleeping well at night in a very civilized manner. We are namely doing that to the environment (acidification of oceans, etc.).
Life in Laos sounds great by the way. Thank God that global technological civilization will be relatively short lived and we can go back to being savages.
Muang Ngoi can be reached by boat up the Nam Oh (sp?) river from Luang Prabang.
Indeed, there are repurposed 500# bomb casings everywhere, as supports and planters. The people are kind, peaceful, very interested in the wider world. We hiked a day north into the jungle and spent the night in a little village. They hunt with flintlocks the blacksmith makes, small animals, mainly, like rats, and gravel is used for shot. I treated our hostess for Helicobacter pylori infection with omeprazole and 2 antibiotics, presuming it was the cause of her having vomited blood several times that year. It was 2005. I hope she healed and lives still. It is a hard life, but a real life, slashing and burning to grow sticky-rice, then moving on.
When we live simply, it is still complicated, and missing medical is a big thing. Those kids wear Chinese t-shirts, and they are enamored of digital cameras, and so on.
Hearing the rats in the rafters at night, and seeing them skinned for breakfast in the morning was informative. This was the deepest into natural human living that my wife and I and our 4 teenage kids ventured on our 9 month bike/backpack world tour. We sold the house and blew the money. We're all OK.
A moving piece you wouldn't find in the mainstream media. Thank God for that! Let's all hope it doesn't encourage backpackers to blaze a trail to the laotian highland in the vanguard of the tourist rush to be first and that doesn't believe a place exists until they have taken a photo of themsleves there.
Dmitry, don't know if you heard of this already but speaking of hypocrisy on Ukraine:
If the Germans are pro-Russian these days, I wonder what the Serbs or Greeks are thinking...
Also, I just noticed this:
,,Any comments mentioning Mad Max or Waterworld are deleted automatically.'' - How about Dune? Desert world, swap spice for oil, fight for freedom against powerful noble families; it could resemble the future of the planet imho.
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